Inside Luke Fickell’s move to Wisconsin, why he now decided to leave Cincinnati

CINCINNATI – Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell will be Wisconsin’s next head coach, sources confirmed to The athletic on Sunday. Fickell informed Cincinnati Sunday morning that he would be leaving to take the new job.

Fickell leaves Cincinnati as the winningest coach of all time with a final record of 57-18 in his six seasons at the helm, including 53-10 in the past five years. He led the Bearcats to the College Football Playoff in 2021 as Cincinnati became the first Group of 5 school to reach the four-team Playoff, collecting numerous Coach of the Year honors in the process.

Fickell resurrected a sunken program when he took over ahead of the 2017 season, making Cincinnati a consistent, legitimate force on the field and in the local recruiting scene, helping the Bearcats to a Power 5 conference. Cincinnati made three consecutive American Athletic Conference Championship Game appearances from 2019 to 2021, winning the last two and earning back-to-back New Year’s Six bids to the Peach Bowl and Cotton Bowl, the latter being a CFP semifinalist. The Bearcats finished the 2022 regular season 9-3 (6-2 AAC) and in third place in the AAC, and will officially enter the Big 12 Conference next summer ahead of the 2023 season.

Sources close to the Cincinnati program have said so The athletic on Sunday that senior executives within the athletic department were aware and prepared for the possibility of Fickell’s departure for a few weeks, with Nebraska and Wisconsin expressing interest. That said a source familiar with the negotiations The athletic that Fickell’s wife, Amy, visited Madison, Wisconsin, this month to investigate the badgers’ interest in Fickell for the head coach position.

Sources close to Cincinnati report this The athletic that the Bearcats administrators have been in talks with Fickell for the past few weeks about what could be done to keep him at Cincinnati, including a willingness to raise the assistant salary pool, among other things, but that when the Wisconsin offer finally came, Fickell felt that this was the right time and the right situation for him to pursue.

The Bearcats lost their regular season finale 27-24 to Tulane on Friday, missing a chance to host a third consecutive AAC Championship Game on Saturday. Cincinnati was officially eliminated from the conference title game on Saturday night.

Asked Friday night after Tulane’s loss how he will approach the potential of an extra week of rumors about hiring and putting his name on the coaching carousel, Fickell said, “It’s too hard to think about. Hopefully there are some things that can happen, and we still have a chance to play, so you don’t know. It’s not the time to think about such things. We need to get back up there and especially take care of those seniors, make sure they keep their heads up and are ready to roll whatever comes our way in the next two weeks.”

Fickell informed the Bearcats administrators of his decision to accept the Wisconsin job Sunday morning and then met with the Cincinnati players and staff. A previously scheduled team meeting was scheduled for 4:30 p.m. Sunday, but it was moved to 1:15 p.m. and Fickell broke the news to the team. Kerry Coombs, Bearcats special teams coordinator and cornerbacks coach, has been named interim head coach, sources say The athletic. Athletic director John Cunningham will hold a press conference on campus at 6:15 p.m. Sunday.

GO DEEPER

Kerry Coombs is back home in Cincinnati

The question for many Bearcats believers in the wake of Fickell’s departure is: Why now? After spending a decade in the realignment wilderness, Cincinnati will finally be competing in the Big 12 and a Power 5 conference within months, in no small part due to the continued success Fickell achieved on the field. He signed a new contract extension in February through the 2028 season that will earn him $5 million a year, increase his annual salary pool to $5.2 million and include promises of a new permanent indoor practice facility, the last two of which are top priorities for Fickell . The practice facility, which will be built on the existing footprint of the current Sheakley Athletics Center practice field in Cincinnati, is estimated to cost $100 million in total and is in the planning stages. Cincinnati’s program has long been a springboard, dating back to Mark Dantonio, Brian Kelly and Butch Jones. But so many of the resources and benefits long sought by Bearcats head coaches, including Fickell, were finally available.

There’s also the fact that during his six years with Cincinnati, Fickell delayed or turned down interest and offers from numerous Power 5 programs, starting with West Virginia after the Bearcats’ surprise 2018 campaign, as well as Florida State, Baylor and , most notably, Michigan State after the 2019 season. The same was true last year of interest from USC and Notre Dame, a job that Fickell always thought was coveted and one of the few that might free him from a comfortable fit and situation in Cincinnati. But Fickell wouldn’t take any other jobs as the Bearcats hunted for a spot in the Playoff last season, and Notre Dame ended up hiring former Fickell assistant and mentee Marcus Freeman.

The feeling among numerous sources close to Fickell is that last year’s Notre Dame experience, along with other previous coaching opportunities, influenced his decision to be more proactive as the carousel took off this year and led to him taking the Wisconsin job. assumed. .

The culture, evaluation, and development led by Fickell at Cincinnati took the Bearcats to the four-team Playoff and yielded a Big 12 invite, as well as increased resources, season ticket sales, and overall investment from the university and community. But the team also felt the impact of losing nine NFL Draft picks from last season’s Playoff roster, including four-year starting quarterback Desmond Ridder and first-team All-Americans Sauce Gardner and Coby Bryant. The Bearcats have continued to recruit at the power conference level and have even seen an uptick with the impending move to the Big 12, but the athletic department has been slightly behind in establishing and advancing NIL avenues. (Cincy Reigns, an all-sports collective that aims to benefit Bearcats athletes, was launched last week and announced after months in the making.) Fickell, who was hesitant to embrace NIL as a recruiting tool, has been frustrated by numerous releases and lost recruiting battles due to NIL in recent months, sources said The athletic.

Even as Fickell remained in Cincinnati despite constant and considerable outside interest, he experienced regular turnover among his assistants and support staff. Freeman left to become defensive coordinator at Notre Dame after 2020, and four assistants left this past off-season for top positions in Power 5 or the NFL.

Ultimately, the feeling among sources familiar with Fickell’s trial and decision is that there was no single issue or issue that prompted his departure from Cincinnati. The latest contract renewal, Big 12 move, upcoming practice facility, new NIL collective, offers for a higher salary pool and other resources were not enough to keep the money, resources and infrastructure in Wisconsin and in the Big Ten, a Fickell conference, to compensate. is very familiar with and fond of his playing days and coaching career at Ohio State.

The addition of USC and UCLA to the Big Ten, and the anticipated shifting of divisions, will no doubt make it more difficult for the Badgers to be perennial contenders alongside Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, USC and others. But Fickell has always been drawn to the culture and program-building aspects of college coaching. As the Playoff will expand to 12 teams, and as the Big Ten and SEC continue to separate financially from the other Power 5 conferences, Fickell saw an opportunity to build something in Wisconsin – where winning a national championship at least on the list of potential possibilities, perhaps easier than Cincinnati – if too good to pass up.

The other obvious and immediate question for the Bearcats is who will replace Fickell and the considerable shadow he will leave behind. Coombs and offensive coordinator Gino Guidugli, a former Bearcats quarterback, are two likely internal candidates, but as Cunningham showed in the search for men’s basketball coach Wes Miller, he’s known for being tight-lipped and unafraid to speak for himself. to go on an offensive. -the-radar candidate.

Whoever becomes the next head coach of Cincinnati football will take on a mix of significant challenges, benefits and aspirations. As painful as Fickell’s departure will be for Bearcats stakeholders, the truth is that he spent six seasons – an eternity in Clifton – and lifted the program from rock bottom to unexpected, unprecedented and heavenly heights.

Over the past few seasons, so many of the great players who came through under Fickell have talked about leaving the program better than they found it. There’s no denying that Fickell did that to an extraordinary degree. The next head coach will have to do the same. It will be a very different and more attractive challenge than Fickell’s, but with a lot more attention and expectations.

(Photo: Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images)

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